Mitch Dobrowner always brings two things when he takes off in his truck to capture a storm: his tripod and his beanie. Sometimes driving 500 miles to take a chance based on cell boosters and his “storm guide” named Roger, he thinks of each storm like a person— each one is born fragile, and no two behave alike. Drawn by the spectacular light and unpredictability of inclement weather, Mitch describes the surge of adrenaline and focus he feels when witnessing a storm’s growth, violence, and personality (sometimes before making a hasty exit to safety). For Polarr, I spoke to Mitch about the art and science of capturing storms.
Emily von Hoffmann: What’s your process like? Do you have a favorite weather app or something and then you just hop in the car?
Mitch Dobrowner: Shooting storms is kind of a hybrid of shooting a quiet landscape and a sporting event: Compositions are constantly changing, the light’s changing, there’s wind, there’s noise, there’s a lot going on and you have to stay focused. Sometimes you drive 500 miles and drop your tripod and the perfect composition happens the second you drop it, sometimes nothing happens until a half an hour later. Sometimes nothing happens at all.
In terms of finding storms, we have cell boosters and there are a combination of applications that Roger Hill, my friend and guide, uses. GRLevel3 is one of his primary apps. The software uses Doppler data as a means for tracking what’s happening within a storm. There are also websites on the NOAA site that helps with forecasting.
EvH: What are the technical difficulties or considerations you need to make when photographing a storm (as opposed to your landscape and urban work)?
MD: The main thing to consider is how to deal with shooting in inclement weather. The wind, rain, hail and dust are always in play while shooting. I found that a cotton washcloth is the best way to keep rain off the lens, and I’ve tried every kind of rain gear. I have long hair and I wear a beanie which keeps the hair out of my eyes. And when it’s pouring rain I put the beanie over the camera to keep it dry and protect it from the hail. So my beanie has ended up being one of my most valuable tools. Also that “thing” of truly focusing, even though there might be a lot going on around me. It takes discipline, I have to stay focused and enjoy the moment, not let it pass with pressure to get a great shot, but to really enjoy it.
EvH: What might be your go-to lens or other piece of equipment for something like a tornado, for example?
MD: My go-to piece of equipment is my tripod, which I never shoot without. I also a cotton washcloth to wipe the rain off the front of my lens are CRITICAL for me. The only other piece of equipment is my ears… which I keep open to listen for when Roger says, “We have to get the f#@! out of here right now!!”
In regards to camera equipment I currently shoot with a Canon 5Dm. The camera’s Live View acts in a similar fashion to the way I used to use the ground glass my 4x5 and 8×10 cameras. I use only 2 lenses, 24–70mm and 70–200mm L series lenses. I realize, with a zoom, that I may be giving up bit in sharpness but these lenses give me the freedom to compose on the fly — which is a priority to me.
EvH: Are there any close calls you can tell us about, when you had to take a risk to get a particular shot?
MD: The only time I have ever gotten scared is when I see wild mouse out in the farm fields. For some reason mice scare the hell out of me! But seriously, I never get scared. That is because what I am usually photographing is such an amazing sight that I get into a zone that is hard to describe. It is awe-inspiring and exhilarating. But as a description of what could be called a close call, there was a storm that we started tracking in South Dakota in July of 2010. We chased the storm for three or four hours, waiting for something to happen, finally catching up to it in a field in Moorcroft, Wyoming.
There we sat for about 10 minutes, waiting for the storm to arrive. Eventually the storm breached the hills in front of us and as it did it turned extremely violent — into a huge hailstorm. As it came over the hills it changed direction and began heading straight at us, probably about 40-to-50 mph. This adventure turned from us chasing the storm into the storm chasing us. The storm eventually did major hail damage to the small town of Moorcroft.
EvH: What drew you to storms, aesthetically or conceptually, as subjects for fine art photography? Do you remember your first time going looking for one?
MD: It’s always about the light. My main focus has always been landscape photography. I have always loved just sitting out in nature, hearing the wind blow and watching the light changing. I study the light and see photography as an exercise in painting with light and shadows. In inclement weather, light and shadows are always changing. Then there are the unexpected things that Mother Nature throws at you, especially when a storm is approaching. It’s a surreal sight. I just try and capture what I see and feel at those moments in my pictures. And I do remember the first time I went looking for a storm.
The sight of it totally blew my mind. I had never seen anything like it before in my life. To me a storm is like a person. It’s born when the conditions are right, at birth it is fragile — it can die — but once it decides it’s going to live it turns unpredictable and can become violent. Eventually it matures and takes form, then ages and dies. No two storms are born in the same exactly way — and no two storms will ever look (or act) the same. So what I try to do is capture the personality of each storm as I would as if I was shooting a portrait of a person.
What always drives me is the mantra I hear in my head… it was written by Edward Abbey: “Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today.” That and my family inspire me.